Japan's Olympic troubles
The Olympics are a big deal. Triumph at the Olympics can mean a great deal for a country whereas a bad performance can figuratively send heads rolling as blame games ensue over responsibility. The Olympics are a particularly big deal for the host country that must expend both political and actual capital to undertake the monumental task of hosting such games. And what do they get in return? It isn't really about the money. Though the prevailing assumption is that the Olympics somehow enrich the country through giving boosts to tourism and such, there is no definitive assertion to be made about the financial gains of Olympic hosts versus the enormous sums of money they must spend. The reason countries continue hosting Olympic games despite the mounting costs is that it carries a lot of political currency. Internationally, a successfully held edition of the Olympics games can bring recognition, acceptance and clout. Nationally, a successfully Olympics, ideally combined with a respectable athlete performance, can be used to signal the progress of a nation and be used to rally national pride. For authoritarian and democratic leaders alike, success as an Olympics host can quickly gather goodwill amongst the people. This is what Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga is banking on in the course of the ongoing Tokyo 2020 Olympics. After abruptly coming to power with the resignation of Japan's longtime PM Shinzo Abe last year, Suga had admittedly big boots to fill. Unfortunately for Suga, he took over during a pandemic and has, as such, had a tough time garnering support for his leadership. Suga and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been blamed for Japan's slow vaccine rollout, among the slowest of all developed nations. As of July 26, just 25.7 per cent of Japan's population has been fully inoculated. Meanwhile, even as the Olympics continue, Japan is facing a wave of new cases with 2,848 new cases in Tokyo on the 27th, nearly double that of Tuesday last week. To reflect, Suga's approval ratings have continued plunging with it being around 34 per cent before the start of the games. To add to his and LDP's woes, the party failed to achieve an outright majority in the recent Tokyo local election despite expectations of an easy win. Experts now say that Suga is betting his entire political fortune on the games being successful with some indications that he could even call for snap elections following the end of the Olympics to try and strengthen his position as a leader. Unfortunately, a lot is working against him. The first is the cost. With the games being delayed for a year and coming with new costs for COVID safety and logistics, the Olympics have shot well over budget. Though the official budget for the games was set for around USD 15.4 billion, recent audits show that the costs have gone over USD 20 billion. Though the financial gain from the games is already questionable, this time it seems almost certain that Japan will see considerable economic losses. Consider the USD 3 billion Japan spent on stadiums, the same stadiums that will go empty for the foreseeable future as the games continue without an audience. An estimate that was put out said that Japan could lose as much as USD 23 billion without an audience as the usually expected tourism boom fails to materialise. Then there is the COVID situation mentioned above which is made worse by the fact that Japan, despite its best efforts, has been unable to keep COVID from spreading through the Olympics village. As of Sunday, 132 Olympics related COVID cases had been reported with at least 13 players also being infected. All this has come with a staggering level of public opposition to the Olympics which had only continued to grow in the leadup to the games with polls showing well over 80 per cent of those being polled expressing a wish for the games to be cancelled or delayed. To top it off, even the corporate sponsors seem eager to keep a distance even though Japan's companies have invested a record $ 3 billion in the games. One of the biggest sponsors, Toyota even went so far as to announce that it won't be advertising during the games given the mood of the country. Other major business figures like SoftBank Group Corp CEO Masayoshi Son have spoken out against the wisdom of holding games in the middle of a raging pandemic. Regardless, the games must continue. This isn't entirely because Suga and the LDP are looking at games as the easiest way of establishing political dominance. There is significant momentum for these games. From the start, Japan saw the games as an important way to 'relaunch the country'. Given that the games come before the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, the Tokyo Olympics are a way for Japan to show that they have not lost against their Chinese rivals at a time when an ageing population and a stagnating GDP growth has raised questions over Japan's future. Cancelling could be seen as a major embarrassment in this regard. It was also an occasion to show off the revival of Japan and particularly the Fukushima prefecture following the devastating earthquake, tsunami and follow-up nuclear tragedy that rocked the nation in 2011. But more than that, there are indications that Japan simply may not have the power to unilaterally cancel or delay the games further without the International Olympic Committee giving the go-ahead. All this places the Japanese leadership in an interesting position of pushing ahead with games that the public does not want happening in order to win public approval. At least for now, it seems to be working though it is unknown if this will actually reverse Suga's fortunes. With Japan putting in a solid performance at the games, at least for the time being Japanese newspapers and citizens seem willing to back down and simply support their country and their athletes. But this bump of approval rests on a knife's edge. If cases go up and are proven to be linked to the Olympics in any way, it is doubtful if Olympics gold will be enough to hold back the fury of the public reaction.